Chad and Quince were idly playing Mumbly Peg killing time, waiting for the Texas and Pacific to pull into the depot. When the distant blast of the train’s whistle announced its arrival, they snatched their jack knives from the dirt beside their bare feet, snapping the blades closed.
Soon their flying feet carried them to a towering oak tree and into its uppermost branches. From that vantage point alongside the dirt road, they could watch the station down the hill and the people milling about. More importantly, they could see the freight cars stretched out behind the two passenger cars.
“Look,” Quince said, pointing. “Third car from the end. A tramp just jumped off and…”
“No, a hobo. He’s got a bindle stick.”
“Why don’t they just say a bandana with his stuff tied to a stick?”
“I don’t know, Quince. It don’t matter. Watch him. If he comes this way we are gonna figure this out once and for all.”
“Maybe. I hope so. They’s got to be a clue why they pass up closer houses and stop at Aunt Bess’s to beg a meal.”
“They couldn’t get scratch at them other houses. Sure ‘nuff couldn’t at Old Man Trotters. He’d skin his wife if she passed out a two-day-old biscuit, that’s for sure.”
“But, how do they know to go to Aunt Bess’s? That’s what we got to figure out.”
“They read signs left by other tramps, but I can’t find the markings. That’s why we got to watch this guy real close. He’s coming, so watch his eyes. See if you can tell anything.”
The man was rail thin and wearing clothes that if they once fit were now several sizes too big. He paused for a moment beneath their tree before ambling on, swiveling his head from side to side. He appeared to be looking for something but whatever it was, Chad and Quincy couldn’t tell. Try as they might the boys couldn’t discern a single thing.
Sure enough, when he came to the gate at Aunt Bess’s he looked around and found a place to stash his bindle. Then he walked up to the door, removed his worn fedora, and knocked softly.
When the boys got to the house Aunt Bess was in the kitchen softly singing Wayfarin’ Stranger; the hobo, in the vegetable patch behind the house, was hoeing weeds.
“Well, look what the cat drug up” she declared. “You boys look like you could use a piece of my apple pie?”
“Yes, Mam,” they echoed simultaneously.
“Well, you’ll have to earn it. Go fetch some well water and give my garden a good drink. You be polite to the man that’s hoeing. That pie will come out of the oven about the time you’re done. Be sure and wash up before you come in.”
When the boys opened the garden gate the man leaned on his hoe and greeted them with a smile. “You fellas been riding the rails? You look a little young to me.”
“No, sir” Quince said. “But, can we ask you sumpin? We’re dying to know...’
“Aberdeen’s my name” he said. “Curiosity killed the …”
“I know, I know,” Quince said, “but you just gotta tell us Mr. Aberdeen. We won’t tell a soul, either.”
“What’s the burr in your britches, boys?”
“How’d you know to stop at this house to beg a meal? I mean, you passed other houses without stopping. We watched you.”
Aberdeen smiled, and commenced hoeing. “Hobo’s leave signs to help one another. Your Aunt’s house is marked saying you can get a feed for doing some work. Some signs say a sob story works, others something churchy. Some houses you avoid.”
“Does that clap-board shack with a rooster mail box have a sign on it?” Chad asked. “That’s Mr. Trotter’s house.”
“Three dogs be sic’ed on you there. Ain’t no use knocking on that door.”
“You’re right about the dogs” Quince said. “What’s that sign look like?”
“Sorry, boys, but you don’t have a need to know. It wouldn’t be right if I messed things up for the next guy.”
“Well, thanks anyway Mr. Aberdeen,” Chad said, “I guess I understand. Aunt Bess will feed you good when you finish. But if I don’t plug the hole in this water bucket ---“
“She’ll put our pie pieces in a sack for you” Quince said. “’You gotta give to get’” she always says. And she’s rock-candy firm about it.”
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